We are Rukmini Callimachi and Andy Mills from The New York Times, and our podcast "Caliphate" investigates who ISIS really is, how they attracted legions of followers and how they stayed in power so long.
Thanks so much for joining us -- we're wrapping things up. And thanks so much for listening to "Caliphate."
Throughout "Caliphate," we spoke with members of the Islamic State, focusing a lot of time on a former ISIS recruit who traveled to Syria but is now living in Canada. We also traveled to Mosul, where we hunted down Islamic State documents and spoke to survivors of the group's worst atrocities, including a young Yazidi girl who was enslaved by the group for nearly three years. To hear the series, go here: https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2018/podcasts/caliphate-isis-rukmini-callimachi.html, or to wherever you listen to podcasts.
ANDY: Good question! Mr. Thunderemoji, WE KNOW NO FEAR.
However... it's not exactly fear but if you've heard Chapter 9 of our series, you know that there is a tension between wanting to chase your curiosity as far as you can and not wanting to cause human beings any more pain than they are already in.
*Miss Thunderemoji, but thanks for the reply. ;)
How do you strike that balance, when it comes to chasing curiosity without causing harm? And/or putting yourself/your team in danger? I assume there's no one answer, but maybe a particular event or story that you can think of?
Well, Miss Thunderemoji, I don't think you can do this job well if your curiosity grossly outweighs your empathy.
One of my first jobs in journalism was working as researcher in South Sudan with people who had lived through some of the worst atrocities imaginable. Everyday I was asking people to tell me about the most awful things that ever happened to them. And it was emotional to say the least. I am actually tearing up just thinking about that now just remembering all of that.
The key aspect to finding the balance is never forgetting that the person you are speaking to is a whole person and not just a character in your story.
As for danger... that's trickier. I think it's just the age-old wisdom of asking yourself: "Is this thing I'm about to do courageous or stupid?"
Have you compared the history of iSIS creation to other similar organizations - cults and other terrorist organizations and found any patterns or similarities that we can learn from?
ANDY: I love this question and my favorite reporting always focuses on the role the sincere belief plays in shaping the world we all live in. On the one hand ISIS is very much it's own thing, but it's origins and it's appeal do share similarities with los of other groups - including other religious ones like The Westboro Baptist Church.
There was a while where our whole team got into Wild, Wild Country on Netflix and we were like - "The parallels are amazing!"
What do you want listeners to get out of your podcast?
RUKMINI: Dear PoquitoBurrito - thank you for your great question. My dream with this podcast was that we would succeed in placing listeners in an ISIS member's shoes as he held a gun and struggled to pull the trigger or as he held a knife and tried find the resolve to carry out the awful actions he says he carried out. I wanted to do this in the hopes of taking people deep inside the ideology of ISIS - so that they could understand how layered it is, how complex it is, and how often it evades a simple black-and-white dichotomy. In the end, if we are to believe Huzayfah's account, he joined ISIS out of compassion. In his telling, it was the videos he saw of civilians being killed in Syria that allowed him to believe ISIS was a group that was fighting for the dignity of Muslims.
I just finished the podcast and found it outstanding. Just an amazing piece of work. Congratulations to both of you. My questions are about the documents.
There has been a lot of controversy about the removal of those documents. I know you have said you are returning them to Iraq. My questions...
Did you seek and/or get permission from the Iraqi government to remove these documents?
Have they been dropped off at the embassy as of this time and if not what is your estimate of when they will be returned?
Do you believe there is any validity to the critiques you have faced on this issue?
Would you do anything differently in the future if faced with a similar situation?
RUKMINI: Hello 25Tab, and thank you for your question. This is Rukmini. The documents are currently with a professional scanner, who has just begun the work of digitizing them. The scanners have estimated that it will take a minimum of three weeks to scan them - and possibly longer. After that, the originals will be given to the Iraqi Embassy in Washington. In addition, we are about to sign a partnership with a major university, which will be investing over $500,000 to create a professional online database, where they will be available to everyone online.
As is noted in my story, my team was always accompanied by Iraqi troops when we entered the buildings in northern Iraq where we found and collected the records.
They gave us permission to take what we took and in some instances they literally held the trash bags open for me as I recovered the papers. Why did they do so? Because they themselves had no plans for preserving these records. In many instances, they were in fact burning the records.
If you scroll down into this Q and A that we published on this topic, you can find an audio link recorded by Andy where you hear Iraqi security forces explaining to us that they had already burned all the ISIS records inside one of the buildings we had just reached:
Thank you so much for the response. Again I cant tell you enough how much I have enjoyed both your written work about ISIS and this podcast.
How can I screengrab your message! Thank you so much.
Have you had any feedback from ISIS members about the podcast?
ANDY: One ISIS member wrote to Rukmini and said, "Your podcast sucks, just like like you."
Others have talked about it in their private channels with less criticism.
So, reviews remain mixed.
Hi Rukmini and Andy! Thank you so much for creating such an intricately produced and thought-provoking podcast. It is currently my favorite audio series out there. And thank you for doing this AMA!
I have two questions for you:
What is the most unbelievable thing you were told by an informant that ended up being true?
What can a layperson do in the fight against religious extremism?
Thank you once again for all of your work reporting on such an important matter.
ANDY: Thanks for your kind words and your questions!
As for "What can a layperson do in the fight against religious extremism?" I recommend checking out this talk from my friend Megan:
Do you think that the Canadian who joined ISIS should face justice in Canada for what he did during his time in Syria? Do you believe that he killed people? Why/why not?
RUKMINI: Hello PolicyAndEditing - and thank you for your insightful question. We have struggled with these questions throughout the making of this podcast. The most straightforward response is that we are first and foremost journalists - and so it's our job to report the facts. It's not for us to dictate a result. It's up to Canadian officials to figure out what to do with Huzayfah.
Of course as a human being, and as someone that cares about others, I struggled throughout the making of this podcast with two intertwined questions: 1. Would my work cause my source harm? 2. Could the source harm others?
I was able to get some closure on the second point once we realized that he was actually under surveillance since the day after he left our hotel room in Canada.
Why do you think ISIS fighters are comfortable speaking to you or other journalists? Is it confidence or just having the right connections?
RUKMINI: Hey there Chad. It's extremely hard to get even one ISIS member to speak to you as a journalist. When I have succeeded in getting members of the group to talk to me, they have opened up to me in part because I think they feel that I am truly listening to them - which is of course my goal. I also get street cred with them because I know their lingo and I know the religious concepts that are important to the group and I don't hesitate to ask about the role that faith played in their journey.
First off love the podcast - as am American I think it really distills global extremism down to a manageable and understandable format for even an at best marginally educated person.
At what point during the investigation did you start doubting the story, if ever? Were you constantly fact-checking or did it occur after the fact?
RUKMINI: Hi SurleyIT - it's Rukmini here. From the moment we met Huzayfah, there was something that was off about his dates. On the one hand, I was blown away by the fact that he was willing to discuss the details of how he carried out murder.
But from the beginning, there was something that was *off* about his dates. For example, he said that he had been in Syria the day that Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi declared the caliphate, which was July 4, 2014. But then in another part of the interview, he said he had left the territory *before* the caliphate was declared.
At the same time he told us that he recalled seeing a truck arrive in Syria and inside it were Yazidi women and girls who had been kidnapped. He described it in granular detail and said that he was struck by how the women were banging their heads against the wall of the truck. But I knew from reporting on the abduction of the Yazidi women that that happened *after* August 3, 2014 -- and the first trucks to arrive with women didn't reach Syria until the end of that month.
So how could he have seen the Yazidi girls arrive, if he had left pre-caliphate - meaning before July 4, 2014?
At first, we just stored that away as we kept gathering string on him. But the thing that really set off our internal alarm bells was when we sat down with his passport and we noticed that there was an exit stamp from a Pakistani airport on July 1, 2014. We were able to pull up his travel record which showed that on that day he was flying from Lahore airport back to Canada. So there's no way that he could have been flying to Canada on July 1 and also have been in Syria just three days later to see the declaration of the caliphate on July 4. That was the string that we started to pull on, which unraveled the fact that he had been lying to us about the timeline.
Besides the Islamic State, which you saw coming before other journalists and government officials, are there any groups currently that could potentially replace the Islamic State?
RUKMINI: Hi PrinceProspero1842. It's Rukmini here. What I am seeing right now is that governments have already taken their eye off the ball when it comes to ISIS. I'm not worried so much about the next group - what I'm worried about is that ISIS itself remains strong and entrenched.
At its height, ISIS held close to 107,000 square kilometers of territory in Iraq and Syria. That's a piece of real estate the size of Great Britain. That territory has been rolled back and ISIS now holds between 2 and 3 percent of the land they once held. That sounds good, right?
But the territory they still hold in Iraq and Syria is close to 3,000 square kilometers - or over 1,000 square miles. That's twice the size of Los Angeles. It's still a significant amount of territory for a group like ISIS to hold, and now the Coalition is flagging as the world turns its attention to other problems.
To me, this looks a lot like a repeat of what happened in 2012 and 2013 which led to the rise of ISIS in the first place.
Do you guys believe, despite the lack of forensic evidence against abu huzaifa, that he will ever stand trial for the crimes he allegedly committed?
ANDY: I have no clue at this time but I sure as hell wonder about that myself.
What more can we as listeners do to support great journalism and storytelling like this? Beyond telling friends to rate it well, subscribing to the NYT, turning off ad-blockers, and fangirling on social media, that is.
The audio format and well-edited and recordings of The Daily and Caliphate are very ... grounding for me... as I white-knuckle through reading what's on the Interwebs and god forbid, the pundits talking over each other on cable TV.
RUKMINI: Thank you so much for your kind thoughts Julie - and definitely subscribing to the New York Times is the way to go!
ANDY: You are awesome and I thank you.
How much audio have you recorded for this podcast and what do you really focus on capturing when you’re out in the field? I was surprised by how I felt like I could see what was happening in the briefcase episode via audio. Thanks for the amazing work!
ANDY: Thanks a lot! We recorded hundreds of hours of audio - especially because when I started following Rukmini around, we didn't really know what story we were going to tell. There were lots of characters and storylines and reporting that had to be left on the cutting room floor, which is always one of the hardest parts of making a thing like this.
Hi Rukmini & Andy. Are there any angles or secondary stories that you uncovered during Caliphate that you found informative or especially that didn't make it into the series because it didn't fit the story you were trying to tell with that podcast? If there are I'd love to know more. Are there any that you might be saving for future Times' articles or productions. It would be great to hear about anything you uncovered during Caliphate that you found fascinating but didn't quite crack the podcast.
ANDY: Great question! Here's a short list of things that we once thought would be in the podcast but they fell away:
- The role that kidnapping plays with different jihadi groups
- The origins of the group and their strange beef with al Qaeda
- A deep dive on Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi
- A deep dive on Abu Musab al-Zarqawi
- A deep dive on Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi
- Surprising similarities between ISIS and White Supremacist groups
- The role that "paradise" plays as bait and motivation
- Lots more other amazing stories from the documents Rukmini found
AND MANY MORE!
I'm struck by how compelling the audio is given how HUMAN and yet, badass the entire production team is. Did you decide beforehand to showcase these elements (Rukmini being afraid of ISIS knocking at her door, Rukmini finding the humor in ISIS fat-shaming her, etc.) or was that just organic in that you guys are real and cool in addition to being complete badasses?
ANDY: I like these words you are saying. Thanks for the flattery! Truly.
I knew from the beginning that I wanted to show Rukmini and her reporting as a big part of the series - but I was happily delighted that we had such an organic (as you say) connection in the studio.. and that she was willing (after some prodding) - to let us include the off-the-cuff moments (like the fat shaming) in the show.
Caliphate is an excellent podcast - I'm really loving it.
Not only is the subject and investigation fascinating, but the style and audio mix makes it even more compelling.
What are you guys planning on doing next, after Caliphate?
ANDY: Thank you very much! Our team that made Caliphate is going to keep working on projects with The Daily and dreaming up new series like this one. Also: Rukmini will keep doing kickass reporting on ISIS.
RUKMINI: All I can think about right now is the vacation that I am planning to take starting Sunday. I have enough comp time to take 3 weeks off - no joke. Thanks so much for enjoying our podcast.
What are the most underreported topics/ countries, in your opinion? P.S. Thank you for all the incredible work you’re doing!
RUKMINI: Hello Sofia and thank you for your comment. I was based in Africa for 7 years, first as the West Africa correspondent for the Associated Press and later as the bureau chief for West Africa. I have long felt that Africa - an entire continent made-up of dozens of countries - is very underrepresented in the American news cycle.
There’s an intensely religious aspect undergirding this entire topic. What difficulties, if any, have you seen in helping a Western audience understand the complexities and nuances of something deeply rooted in faith and radical interpretations of religion? I ask because I’ve found your Twitter threads, Rukmini, to be very helpful and insightful.
RUKMINI: This is such a great question, TregP. And in fact, it was our shared interest in faith that brought Andy and I together. One of our vows to each other and to this project is that we would not shy away from looking at the religious aspect of what Huzayfah was telling us - and instead we wanted to dive deeply into that world.
One of the difficulties in dealing with this is that we had to teach listeners a whole new vocabulary. Just from Chapter 2 (the Recruitment Episode), a listener needs to understand the concepts of Tawheed al-Hakkimiya, al-wala wal bara and kufr bi taghut. These are the critical religious notions that ISIS recruiters inculcate in order to lure in people like Huzayfah. I had tried to go over these concepts in a story I did in 2016 about Jesse Morton, a former recruiter for al-Qaeda - but it just proved to be too academic, too in-the-weeds for a New York Times story:
I'm really proud that we were able to tackle these and other concepts in our telling of Huzayfah's experience.
Is the NYT considering continuing the narrative in a "season 2", if you will?
RUKMINI: Hello Julie - we honestly haven't gotten that far. We still can't believe that we managed to wrap Season 1.
What was the scariest moment during your work on this podcast? And do you think the Canadian recruit really felt remorse or was putting on a show?
ANDY: On a rooftop in an largely abandoned village at the foothills of Sinjar Mountain, I was recording the night noises and then suddenly a building just a few yards away exploded exploded. It turns out that the Iraqi troops we were embedded with had put booby traps inside of some ISIS tunnels. Here is a recording of the moment if you want to hear it: https://www.dropbox.com/s/e5c1b5sp2p5qtx2/ROOF%20TOP%20ABOVE%20ISIS%20TUNNELS%20v1.mp3?dl=0
the biggest misconception about ISIS?
In the west: That belief and religion play no role.
In Iraq: That ISIS was created by the US.
What drove you to investigate ISIS?
What about ISIS' motives/behavior scares you the most, more than anything else?
RUKMINI: Hi there Mr. Dedpul, it's Rukmini here. Thank you for your question. This journey began for me almost six years ago, when an affiliate of al-Qaeda took over northern Mali. At that point in time, I was the West Africa bureau chief for The Associated Press, and Mali was one of the 20 countries on my beat. Because it was too dangerous to travel to the area under jihadist control, I did my best to report on the group by phone - and I created a picture in my mind of what the group was like based on what people, especially officials, were telling me.
The year was 2012, and Osama bin Laden had been killed not even a year earlier, and the narrative I heard from officials in Washington was that this group in northern Mali - which called itself Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb - was really not part of al-Qaeda at all. That it had just "opportunistically" taken on the al-Qaeda name. And that really, they were just a bunch of criminals in the desert, with no real connective tissue to the larger terror group.
Everything changed for me in January of 2013, when French forces moved north into Mali in order to flush out the jihadists. I followed from behind and when I stepped into the buildings that the al-Qaeda fighters had occupied, I found thousands of pages of documents that they left behind, which upended everything I thought I knew about the group. First, I found a letter from the General Manager of al-Qaeda addressed to the fighters in Mali - but how could that be if the group, as officials in Washington insisted, had no real ties to al-Qaeda? I realized then that there was a gap in our understanding of these terrorist groups, and there was a void in the type of reporting that was being done on them.
I realized moreover that there was real value to going to the group *itself* and trying to understand them first through the documents they left behind, and also through their members.
In 2014, I joined the New York Times and that was the year al-Qaeda cleaved in two and we saw the rise of ISIS. I have brought the same investigative techniques to my work on ISIS. My work is informed by the same basic sensibility - namely that we need to go directly to the group if we hope to understand it. I do this both by seeking out their members and by spending months on the ground in Iraq, scouring the buildings they occupied for the documents they left behind.
Hello. I was wondering about your thoughts regarding the attack on the Manila casino in June 2017. I was following your work at the time and you were saying that the Islamic State doesn't tend to claim things falsely. Feels like the Philippine police pushed back on it strongly though and the news about the suspect kind of dropped off. What is your feeling about the situation now?
RUKMINI: Thank you very much for your question, Yakinikutabehoudai. The Manila casino case appears to be a false claim by ISIS. In addition to Manila, I would add the following: The Las Vegas claim appears to be false; the claim for an attempted attack on Charles de Gaulle airport also appears to be false; and a little-publicized claim for the alleged murder of an American contractor in southern Turkey also seems to be wrong. Those are the ones I can think of off the top of my head.
What people miss when they point to these false claims as evidence of duplicity by ISIS is the dozens and dozens of *correct* claims that the group has issued. (Please note that I am looking at these claims from the perspective of ISIS, and the group has made clear in its propaganda that it does not distinguish between attacks carried out by their own members in Iraq and Syria and attacks carried out in their names by their supporters around the world. So an attack inside the Pulse nightclub by Omar Mateen, a supporter of the group is seen by ISIS as an attack carried out by someone acting in their name).
The overwhelming pattern is that this is a group that waits and takes its time before claiming, in order to make sure that the attack really was being done in their name. Here is a story I did on one of the people involved in claiming attacks for Amaq, the ISIS news agency. Please notice the vetting that goes into from ISIS' perspective:
One the flip side, there are far more cases of attacks that officials rushed to say were *not* ISIS, only for the evidence to emerge latter. Check out this Twitter thread by German journalist Florian Flade from yesterday regarding the ISIS handler "moumou1" who was speaking to the man who used a truck to plow into shoppers at a Christmas market in Berlin in 2016t. I helped cover that attack remotely, and I knew right away that ISIS was involved because the attacker had uploaded a video of himself to Amaq - again, that's the ISIS news agency - pledging allegiance to the group before carrying out the murders. So at a minimum there was a digital connection. But officials still downplayed the role of ISIS.
It's taken over a year for the truth to come out - and I hate to say it, but ISIS was right:
Who was responsible for including the lonelygirl15 sondbite in episode two in the context of Abu Huzayfah creating an online "avatar" with a new name and different personality?
It was an inspired choice and it did not go unnoticed.
(Great reporting as always, and the podcast is also enjoyable)
ANDY: It makes me very happy that you noticed this tiny detail.
It's the little things, ya know?
Do you ever find yourself holding back? Are there questions you're too afraid to ask? If so, what are they?
View HistoryShare Link